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Positive Feedback ISSUE
FMJ CD-36T CD player
as reviewed by Jeff Parks
It has been a little over a year and half since I have written a review for Positive-Feedback. How the time does fly—especially when you are a parent of a newborn. Hannah Jean was born August 3, 2006. While I would never trade my daughter in for anything, I do have to say my audiophile world has taken a hit now that much of my free time is taken up by spending it with Hannah. After ten months of being a parent coupled with Hannah growing up a bit, I have become less neurotic in hovering over her. As a result, I am now finding some time (albeit minute) to listen to music and evaluate gear. What better way to revisit my reviewing duties than by looking at one of my favorite CD machines Arcam's FMJ series.
The last time I had my hand on a piece of Arcam gear was Issue 17. In that article I wrote how we were at the twilight of the Redbook digital age, where many manufacturers were abandoning pure CD players in favor of the more marketable universal or multi-format players. Yet here I was in late 2004 looking at an integrated one box CD player—the Arcam CD-192. Maybe CD wasn't really dead. Knowing that now many manufacturers have returned to manufacturing or upgrading their current line of CD players, I believe that Redbook CD is making a strong comeback! As I stated in my last Arcam article, I believe this is due to DVD-A and SACD not living up to its potential and hype. While there are a few manufacturers that are holding on to these loosely supported formats, I myself am not interested in owning a "universal" player unless it is a part of my home theater system.
When it comes to pure digital pleasure (at least in this reviewer's budget) I will stick with a Redbook only CD player. Why? Because, for me, it is what I like listening to the most. While some universal players are good, in fact very good, none of them lit my wick like a pure CD player with all of its technology wrapped up in CD rendering as opposed to a dying digital format like SACD and DVD-A. Besides, with my main music investment in Redbook CD and vinyl, it makes more sense investing in a format I am already committed to as opposed to one that is on its way out. Maybe that is why many manufacturers still have at least one of CD player in their equipment lineup. One of these CD players that has captured my interest and has been under this reviewer's radar is Arcam's current model—the FMJ CD-36T.
I have always been a fan of Arcam CD players ever since my first introduction to the Arcam Alpha 9. It was my great friend and fellow PFO staffer Les Mertz who introduced me to this very special CD player. Almost immediately the Arcam Alpha 9 placed a lasting impression upon my audio soul. This modestly priced CD player kept up with the big boys by doing what I think was so hard to do for many players at that time, it sounded more like music and less like digital. The Arcam 9 never disappointed me with its robust bass, deep soundstage, fantastic layering of a complex soundstage, and most importantly it did many things musically right.
Today I am looking at the Arcam CD-36T (The "T" stands for text version) the replacement to Arcam's highly reviewed CD-33. Having read Les Mertz's review of the CD-33 Issue 17, and hearing the player for myself in Les's system and in mine as well, I was once again impressed with Arcam's assault upon the digital world with the CD-33. If it were not for me being invested in a another CD player, the CD-33 would have been on my short list to purchase. In short, the Arcam CD-36T is a development from the highly reviewed CD-33. Since Les Mertz goes into great detail in his article discussing the CD-33 I urge readers to read his article for more information. For the purpose of this article my focus will be upon the CD-36T in how it compares to the CD 33 along with my current reference the Electrocompaniet EMC-1 UP, along with a brief discussion of the EAR acute "tube" CD player.
There are three areas where the CD-36T differs from the CD-33. The upgraded power supply, the chassis being made out of a proprietary material called "Acousteel", and the use of "stealth mat" technology. Other than that, the players are very similar. Similar to the CD-33 the CD-36 uses Wolfson 8740 DACs. Both units use a total of 2 per channel in balanced mode in order to reduce noise and improve linearity by averaging out errors. As with most Arcam products the appearance of the CD-36 is pretty utilitarian in design like the CD-33. On the other hand looks can be deceiving. Where some manufacturers place a huge emphasis upon the look of a player, Arcam does not. Arcam places the money where it counts, into the design of the player that affects its sound. It is not to say the player is ugly, it is not. One thing that I did notice right away is how inert the chassis of the CD-36 is compared to other similarly priced players. In my opinion, the chassis is about as dead as it can get. In tapping the unit with my index finger the sound I get back is a deep "thud". I am sure this is a result of Arcam's use of the Acousteel chassis along with using Stealth Mat technology that is located in key joint positions where the chassis of the player meets with the top cover. The last big difference between the CD-36 and the CD-33 is the 36's use of a more powerful power supply. This results in better bass reproduction as compared to the CD-33.
So, how does it sound? While the CD-36 does share a lot of the same traits of the CD-33, for example, a large soundstage, great layering, an analog quality about it that makes you forget it is digital, the biggest difference is in bass reproduction. While the difference is not huge it is noticeable and definitely an improvement. If I were to describe the CD-36 in a word it would be vinyl. Why vinyl? It is because when listening to the CD-36 you begin to wonder if you are listening to a digital CD player and begin to understand how close some CD players are to approaching the sound of your coveted LPs. Like good vinyl playback, instruments are well defined without being overdone or etched with a sense of musical pace that seems to be more analog or vinyl like what one would expect from a mid-priced digital CD player. Maybe this is due to a great design of the CD-36 where digital artifacts are reduced to a minimum, or maybe it is due to the way Arcam's engineers voiced the CD-36, or maybe a little of both? One thing that is for sure is the CD-36 has got to be one of the best and most analog like CD players I have ever heard under the $3000.00 price tag. It is that good! If I were to fault the CD-36 at all, it would be that it errs on the side giving up a tad of detail and articulation in exchange for getting the purity of the music right. In short, the CD-36 is a highly musical CD player. Bearing this in mind, I can listen to this player for hours on end without ever experiencing listener's fatigue.
Does the CD-36 stand up to other reference quality players like my Electrocompaniet EMC-1 or one of my personal favorites--the EAR Acute "tubed" output CD player that starts out as an Arcam player. While the Electocompanient is more detail oriented, and a bit forward sounding, the CD-36 soundstage is more laidback, warm, and with a touch of richness to it that is quite pleasant to listen to. Especially for those extended marathon listening sessions that go late into the wee hours of the morning. Please don't get me wrong while the 36's imaging may not be as detailed or dramatic as the EMC-1, it does image quite well with all of the instruments and performers do occupy their respective places on the soundstage. The CD-36 gives a smoother and different presentation as compared to the EMC-1. To put it into other words, the EMC-1 is more Ying, whereas, the CD-36 is more Yang while at the same time neither player is to the extreme—both stay fairly close to center though each on opposite sides of this spectrum. Personally I see a place for both perspectives, a deep detail oriented reproduction like my EMC-1, or a more laidback and warmer rendering like the CD-36 presents to the listener. Again, is this a bad attribute? No, not to me. Truly, the CD-36 is easy on the ears and a joy for the audio soul. It really is up to you which presentation is best. That is why I always encourage readers to audition gear for themselves prior to buying since your taste or agenda may be different from mine
Once I get my hands onto a piece of audio gear I like to take it on the road to my fellow audiophile friends homes—especially those whose ears I really respect. Why? I want to make sure what I am experiencing as an audio reviewer regarding how a piece of gear sounds is not system dependent. One of those friends I trust is fellow PFO staffer Les Mertz who has an excellent system and a great pair of audiophile ears. As I stated earlier in the article the CD-33 did stand toe to toe with the CD-36. In fact, in most areas both players were identical with one exception—bass reproduction. In the area of bass reproduction the CD-36 does have the edge. Again, in Les's system the CD-36 had all of the great attributes that I heard in my home—great soundstaging and instrument image layering, along with the vinyl like warmth that seems to be a common theme amongst Arcam FMJ products. This player is truly addictive!
Only one place did the CD-36 not knock everyone's socks off, that was at my good friend Dan Meinwald's home. As many of you know Dan Meinwald is the US importer for EAR products. I have known Dan for over 8 years now, and have come to respect his audiophile ears along with his uncanny ability to put together some of the most musically engaging systems I have ever heard each year at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). When the opportunity presents itself I try bring gear over to Dan's house for that true "acid" test. Could the CD-36 stand up to Dan's current reference the EAR Acute? As many of you can recall the Acute starts out as an Arcam player. (For more information regarding the EAR Acute take a look at Bob Levi's review in Issue 27.) However, once Tim De Paranvicini gets his magic hands on it all that is left of the original player is the Wolfson DACs, the transport, and the original main outer shell, other than that everything else is redesigned including a fully balanced design all to the way to the XLR output. Oh, how I wish the CD-36 had an XLR output--it does not, only two pair of RCA outputs which are quite nice, and one optical (toslink) and one coax digital output just in case you would want to use the CD-36 as a transport.
Once in Dan's system, we allowed the CD-36 to warm up a bit—about 30 minutes. Shortly thereafter, Dan put on a series of music ranging from classical, to rock, to jazz, all of which sounded great on the CD-36. Again, all of the same attributes of the 36 were there: great soundstaging and instrument imaging, great vocals, and that once again laidback analog presentation. However, once we placed the EAR Acute into the rig things were never the same. Have you ever hot-rodded a piece of gear--you know what I mean changing caps, resistors, etc? If everything has gone right with your upgrade what you have now is bigger and better than what you had in the past—meaning you have corrected errors of omission, errors of submission, or maybe a little of both. It short, all of the products weaknesses have been eliminated or minimized. That is exactly how I remember the EAR Acute as compared to the CD-36. The Acute had a larger more three-dimensional soundstage, instrument imaging was deeper, and with better clarity resulting in a natural harmonic reproduction that allows the listener to hear their recording like they never had in the past. The Acute is truly transcendental at times where it extends all of the Arcam CD-36's attributes to another level and beyond!
Yes, the E.A.R. Acute is that good! However, then again for it should be that good! This is not an inexpensive CD player as is the Electrocompaniet for that matter with both players approaching almost $6000 US. Food for thought! I would love to own a 5-series BMW. However, my budget limits what I can spend. Therefore, I settled for a MazdaSpeed6. Is the MazdaSpeed6 a BMW? No. However, it is still fun to drive and it is fast. I look at the CD-36 the same way. While it is not a giant killer, it still possesses excellent value for the money. That in and of itself, is quite the accomplishment! Let's remember the CD-36 retails for $2000 US and the E.A.R. Acute is almost three times the price at $5500 US. So, for almost one third the price of the E.A.R. Acute or my Electrocompanient EMC-1 UP ($6000 US) the Arcam is a rockin' bargain. If you can afford the more expensive players like the Acute or the EMC-1 go for it, but if you have financial limits or just think spending over $2500 for a CD player is nuts then maybe the CD-36 is the player for you. I am in love. Maybe that is why I purchased mine, which can only serve as my highest recommendation! Jeff Parks